President Barack Obama met for the first time yesterday with a panel he requested to review U.S. collection of telephone and Internet data, according to a White House statement that identified the group’s members.
The panel includes Richard Clarke, a former U.S. cybersecurity adviser; Michael Morell, a former deputy CIA director; Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago law professor; Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor; and Peter Swire, who served earlier on Obama’s National Economic Council.
The review group was among a series of steps Obama announced at an Aug. 9 White House news conference to quell growing public and congressional criticism of programs that scour data on communications by U.S. citizens to look for links to terrorist activity.
“It’s not enough for me as president, to have confidence in these programs,” Obama said at the news conference. “The American people need to have confidence in them as well.”
The panel will provide interim findings to Obama within 60 days to be followed by a final report, according to the White House statement. The group’s goal, according to the statement, is to examine how the U.S. “can employ its technical collection capabilities in a way that optimally protects our national security and advances our foreign policy while respecting our commitment to privacy and civil liberties.”
The steps follow Americans’ expressions of unease with the surveillance activities. In a survey released July 26 by the Pew Research Center, 56 percent of Americans said the courts don’t set adequate limits on the information collected, and 70 percent of Americans said they believe the government is using the data for purposes beyond anti-terrorism.
Even with those objections, 50 percent of those surveyed said they approve of the programs while 44 percent disapproved.
The debate was ignited after revelations about two National Security Agency programs by former computer security contractor Edward Snowden, who has been charged by federal officials with illegally leaking classified documents. Snowden, 30, is in Russia, which has granted the former Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. employee temporary asylum.
The NSA has been collecting millions of phone records from American citizens and monitoring cross-border Internet traffic. Government officials say the surveillance is authorized by a secret court under the Patriot Act, passed after the Sept. 11 attacks, and is needed to prevent future terrorist strikes.
The government cited intercepted communications among terrorist groups in announcing earlier this month that almost two-dozen U.S. diplomatic posts in some predominantly Muslim countries would be temporarily shut because of an attack threat.
Lawmakers from both parties have raised concerns about the legal rationale for the data collection. They have zeroed in on the program that gathers millions of phone records from U.S. citizens into government computers, authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court under the Patriot Act. The court, which operates in secret, has come under scrutiny for being too willing to approve intelligence-agency requests.
Obama said during his news conference that he will ask Congress to change the section of the Patriot Act allowing collection of telephone records, to increase oversight and transparency. He said he’ll also propose a legal advocate to serve as an adversary when spy agencies make requests in the secret sessions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which vets requests for electronic eavesdropping.
A House proposal to take away funding for the NSA programs -- which was vigorously opposed by the Obama administration -- came seven votes short of passing July 24.
The panel members identified by the White house have a range of experience in government, including in intelligence roles. Morell, 54, worked for the Central Intelligence Agency for more than 30 years after beginning his career there as an analyst in 1980. He served as acting CIA director after the resignation of David Petraeus in November until John Brennan was sworn in as CIA director in March.
Clarke, 62, served on the U.S. National Security Council under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He’s now the chairman of Good Harbor Consulting LLC, an Arlington, Virginia-based adviser on cybersecurity risk management.
The 55-year-old Swire, who served on the National Economic Council from 2009 to 2010, is now a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He’s also co-chairman of the Tracking Protection Working Group, a standards body that seeks to shield consumers from being tracked online by advertisers.
Sunstein, 58, who served in Obama’s first term as head of the U.S. Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, is a Bloomberg View columnist. Stone specializes in constitutional law at the University of Chicago and is the author of the book, “Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime.”